Here’s a curious military insight. The United States has the best-equipped standing army in the world, but soldiers about to be deployed to cold regions will often go shopping for gloves at civilian camping stores.
This is because the standard-issue US army versions were designed more than three decades ago and aren’t much cop. They are notoriously bulky and, worse, make the wearer’s hands overheat and sweat profusely – unpleasant enough in any circumstances, but potentially dangerous in environments where salty liquid films can freeze in seconds flat.
Also, it’s very difficult to fire a gun when your fingers are numb.
Commercially produced gloves made for mountaineers and skiers are much more thermally efficient.
Now, however, research by Paola D’Angelo and a team based at the US Army Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Centre in Massachusetts looks likely to put the military firmly back in the forefront of cold-weather glove development.
D’Angelo and her colleagues are working on incorporating heat-transmitting silver nanowires into fabrics such as polyester and cotton-nylon amalgams.
In research to be presented this week to the 254th National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society (ACS), which starts in Washington DC on August 20, the scientists report that applying the low-voltage output of a watch battery to the augmented textiles raises its temperature by around 36 degrees Celsius in under a minute.
To create proof-of-concept fabrics, the researchers built on the work of Stanford University’s Yi Cui, who has published several papers exploring the use of electrically conductive silver nanowires in flexible substrates.
Gloves that grow out of the work of D’Angelo and her team will also incorporate an absorbent hydrogel, ensuring sweat is rapidly removed.
The team also reports that the new fabric withstands repeated washing without loss of efficiency – a problem that currently plagues most items of wearable tech.
Once replacement gloves for the military have been rolled out, the next target is clothing for torsos and legs. The scientists says that at some stage the silver nanowire fabrics are likely to cross over into commercial development – something that may well please many a mountaineer.
Andrew Masterson is a former editor of Cosmos.